“Seek deep within your soul. Close your eyes and die. In that strange forbidden limbo between life and death, open your eyes. Be assaulted by the kaleidoscope of spirits that live within every single thing, interpolating, interlacing, intersecting endlessly. You are part of this interconnection, the rivers of the great Supreme. Why do you poison it?’”

Balyan Hugasun, while training young alabay

Binayaan carried Bakong to the shore. There, Kiyam and Karakasa were helping the crew unlash the boat, pushing it away from the hardwood docks. “Quickly!” Kiyam screamed out.

Bakong shook her head. “What about Masuna?”

“There’s no time, bayi,” replied Karakasa. 

The commotion led to an uproar in the dock wet markets, throwing fish sauce spirits into frenzies, and alcohol spirits dancing as the half-fermented brew spilled onto the shore.

“But…” pressed Bakong, but she could not struggle free from her sister’s grasp. “Sister!”

“Oh boy!” And Karakasa leapt up to the sky, spun his spear about, and then leapt straight down, impossibly. As if the sky and air were obeying him.

Bakong looked behind Binayaan and saw that at least three warriors were chasing after them. Levelling an intensely decorated bayonet, with various blue flames floating about them, was a gunner. They fired their arquebus, and then Karakasa deflected it with an equally-rapid spear twirl. Instead of reloading, one of the balls of flame dove into the bayonet instead. They wore incessantly extravagant clothing, leather boots and pants so indicative of Virbanwan make, and their smug grin overshadowed the fact that their gender was entirely incomprehensible.

“Oy, oy! Look at the frog being helpful out of the water!” they shouted, and their voice was scratchy, hoarse, as if burned by smoke. They adjusted their monocle, and then aimed again.

Baril Witch by Dylan Briones

Another was a large mantisfolk with a sarong and sarok, or wide-brimmed hat, tasselled with gold so densely packed that it worked as a veil. She wore a tube skirt that doubled as a shawl, and in her hands she wielded natural blades, sharper than steel, more pliant than bamboo. She leapt from roof to roof, pole to pole, and then cut open the fabric of reality only to dive through it to appear on the other side, avoiding a huge portion of the marketplace. 

The marketplace had erupted into a frenzy.

The last one was a giant primate macaquefolk with bristly silver fur. He wore a warrior’s peaked iron helmet. Kupya, called in the isles. In one hand he carried a giant panabas, almost ceremonial in its length and width, inlaid with gold to produce flame-like patterns. While the mantisfolk avoided the throngs of people, the macaquefolk barrelled through them like a barge crashing through water lilies.

Karakasa descended then, impossibly, as if thrown by an invisible god in the sky. His spear struck the macaquefolk’s peaked helmet. Bakong could see the shockwave emanating from the impact.  

The macaquefolk was a juggernaut. 

While his muscles rippled from the impact, and the hardwood beneath his feet cracked and splintered, he charged through anyway, grabbing Karakasa and sending him flying into the air.

Karakasa caught himself in midair and flipped in a graceful flourish, settling atop a pole jutting out of the sea. “Binayaan, quickly!” He called out. “These are out to get Bakong, no doubt!”

Binayaan nodded. She rushed over to Kiyam, and the civetfolk helped Bakong onto the ship. Binayaan turned and fired a few shots from her rifle before leaping onto the ship itself. Some of the bullets struck at the macaquefolk’s feet, and sent him stumbling just for a few moments.

Of course, a few moments was all they needed.

Karakasa leapt up again, like a spear shot from a ballista. He clashed with the invisible form of the mantisfolk that had ripped into the fabric of reality again. His spear was like lightning: they traded blows in the sky, and Karakasa prevailed. He sent the mantisfolk into the sea, and he performed that impossible jump in midair to land on the barge, which had begun to leave the port.

“Row faster, louts!” Yelled Kiyam, and his crewmen did so, sailing faster and faster, off and away of Put’wan’s waters.

The gunner walked up to the macaquefolk. “Purawang Anggitan,” said the man. “Are you well?”

“Spare me your worries, gunmonger,” replied Anggitan, scowling. “I would rather not be patronized by the likes of you.”

“That’s Gat Asul Nangmangabala, to you,” replied Gat Asul. 

“Azure Lord of the Bullets,” said the mantisfolk as sh clambered onto the docks. “We have missed a grand opportunity,” she snarled.

“Worry not, dear Katawilis,” said Asul. “The hunt is on. We need only to follow the ripples upon the water.”

“What if one of the other 87 finds her first?”

“That is why we must kill the other 87 before they can get to her. She bears the Crown of Prestige and Royalty. If anyone is to seize it, it will be us, dear warband.”

Back on the barge, Bakong was heaving and sighing. Binayaan had rushed her into her palanquin. A few wounds and scars ripped through Bakong’s bicep, but nothing she couldn’t handle.

“Sister. What about Masuna?” her voice was small, filled with genuine worry.

“Masuna will be able to handle himself, Bakong,” said Binayaan. “But you will not. You have too much at stake. Your well being is our first concern.”

Before Bakong could protest anymore, Binayaan seized Bakong’s shoulders and immediately silenced her. “There will be time to meet once again with Masuna. He will survive, and he will be able to find his way into Akai.”

“I am naked without my shield,” replied Bakong, tearing herself away from Binayaan’s hands and hugging herself. “How will I–”

“Bakong, it is time to stop relying on your shield. If you wish to change the world, then you must be a spear ever-piercing.” Binayaan sat down, resting a hand on her knee. 

Bakong still did not reply. Instead, she fell onto her side, her head plopping down onto the silk pillow.

Binayaan sighed. “Some things to ponder on, sister. It would be best if you knew what you were getting into. For now, take a rest. We all know how capable Masuna is. Stay the course, for now. I’ll serve as your protection.” 

With a grin, Binayaan moved out of the palanquin.

Outside, Kiyam and Karakasa were on standby. Kiyam was offhandedly issuing orders to his crew, while Karakasa was sharpening his spear against a whetfish. 

The sea breeze is cold now, but the sun was rising high into the sky. To rest, most of the crew and Kiyam retreated to the underside of the fighting deck, where they were shaded and could keep cargo and could sit.

Binayaan made her way over there. The trade winds were blessed at this time of the month. They only needed a few crewmembers to paddle the boat, to ensure its course.

“How is the princess?” asked Karakasa as Binayaan walked into the shade of the fighting deck.

 “She’ll be fine,” replied Binayaan. Off in the distance, far past the stern of the ship, she could see her own war barge, decorated with plumes and spears and gold. “Especially now that I’m here.” She grinned.

The frogfolk spearmaster shrugged. “I sure hope you’re right. Bakong is being hunted down by a lot of people now, it seems.”

Kiyam piped up. “87.”

Binayaan turned to him. “87?”

“87 Swords of the Star chase after her now,” Kiyam rasped. “That’s what I overheard. That’s what those three ingrates were talking about as they docked upon Put’wan’s shores.”

Binayaan furrowed her eyebrows. “That… doesn’t sound good.”

“It’s an ancient Virbanwan legend,” Kiyam said as he scratched his chin. ‘In the end of days, when the Hero of Legend is come, he will be followed by 87 Swords of the Star. His steps shall be as flame, his tears as waterfalls cascading upon this broken land as he saves it. He shall become the messiah, the great savior, the one who shall return in the future as the Once and Future God-King, the Maitresiya.’

Binayaan raised her eyebrow at Kiyam. “Wow, you know all that?”

“As a merchant, I’ve met my fair share of zealots. Especially when they hitch a ride. Hey, I can’t stop them. That’s good business.”

Karakasa finished whetting his spear and began oiling it from a bag that he carried. “So what you’re saying is that we’re… at the end times?”

“Perhaps,” Kiyam replied.

“But Bakong is not the hero of legend, right?” Binayaan pointed out. “She’s just a hidden daughter of the Rajah.”

Karakasa piped up: “Ah, I’ve been hearing about his Hero of Legend. The man with the Gleaming Saiva Sword, the Batara Pudong, the Gamhanang Kalasag, the Kedu-Rahu Armbands and Anklets, the Lawana Sinigida Breastplate, and the Avalokitesvara Sarong. These are ancient regalia, each belonging to a Rajah that was the son of the first God-King. The Maitresiya part… well that was not in any part of Put’wan tradition, at least. The Virbanwans put everything else after that.”

Kiyam nodded. “They’re good at that, taking things and making it their own.”

Binayaan sat down. “But damn if this isn’t a bad thing,” she said. “Why are the 87 chasing after Bakong? Shouldn’t they be chasing after the Hero of Legend or whatever?”

Kiyam shook his head. “Note, I suppose, that the 87 Swords of the Star are not chasing after the Hero of Legend. Rather they follow after him. The 87 are protectors, guardians, his vassals, his following. Perhaps that is why.”

“So the Hero of Legend would be the Rajah, and the 87 Swords of the Star are the datu indebted to him?”

Binayaan sighed and looked up. “All of this is so complicated. I don’t get how my sister is getting involved in it. She’s just being shipped off to be wed to a man that she never met!”

Kiyam snorted at that. “From what I’ve heard about you, Binayaan, you would be the one to free your sister from that fate.”

Binayaan shrugged, and there was a grin on her face. “We’ll see. Let’s get to Jambangan first.”

“And survive all of this,” said Karakasa. Binayaan couldn’t help but nod.

That night, they continued sailing on. They were in an auspicious time, as the moon was full that night, meaning they had sufficient lights to continue sailing. In the islands, almost every expert sailor and raider memorized the lay of the waters. Landmarks were important, but simply following the current or the winds that went through the island and gave it a particular trading pattern was more than enough. It was, in a very real sense, something that thrummed in their bones. 

Kiyam sat atop the palanquin, smoking some sugapa in between chewing on betel nut. He watched as the rest of his crew went off to sleep or rest underneath the fighting decks. There was no need to row, right now, since the wind was strong and cold during the night. Of course, they would have to take shifts, because eventually, the boat might get stuck when the wind suddenly refuses to blow for whatever reason.

Kiyam looked up at the clouds. A clear enough night. Not clear enough to be an omen, but not filled with heavy clouds that could spell a storm.

The wind ruffled his fur. Jambangan, he thought. I return to you.

“Having fun up there?” It was Binayaan’s voice.

Kiyam didn’t turn to reply. “This is my quiet time, your majesty. With all due respect.”

“Just call me Binayaan. There are no princesses or rajahs here.”

“Except there are,” said Kiyam, but he relented. “You should be sleeping, gun princess.”

“I should,” said Binayaan, shrugging. “But I don’t think I can right now.”

Kiyam raised an eyebrow, and then dragged on his sugapa pipe. He offered it to Binayaan, but Binayaan refused with a polite wave.

“Must not be a lot of things on your mind to reject some top grade sugapa,” said Kiyam, smirking.

“Not really, captain. It’s more of… worry.”

“Ah. Bakong?”

Binayaan nodded. She watched the moon. It was a sharp crescent tonight. The god showed their horns. “I’m sure you know by now, but she is not supposed to be a hero. She is not supposed to be a warrior.”

“I can surmise that,” the captain said. “But I suppose that was why that kawal, Masuna, stood with her. However, now that does seem to have been somewhat replaced by you and that little demon gremlin.”

“Masuna… is a strong one. He is of the same age as me, although I precede him by around 4 harvests. He is faithful to a fault. He would put others way before himself.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Kiyam replied. “He’s a kawal, it’s his job to protect.”

“I guess you’re right,” Binayaan said, biting at her lip. “But he is intensely loyal to the Rajahnate because of family, his unbreaking love for his family. They all work for us, in the Rajahnate, and he took it to be his duty to protect whoever in the Rajahnate he was assigned to.”

Kiyam nodded. “Then that is a good thing, then. Masuna will no doubt be able to fulfill his duty of protecting the binukot. With that in mind, I guess we will see him in Jambangan, then.”

“I’m sure he’s fine. Masuna is one of the finest swordsmen I’ve met. You’re right, Kiyam. We will see him in Jambangan.”

Kiyam didn’t reply. He drifted off into an almost trance-like stare at the moon, dragging on his sugapa pipe periodically.

The night was quiet. The sound of the waves lulled, were like bells tolling, heralding a great reckoning.

Bakong awoke to the sound of the waves, to the silent wind of the night carrying their traveling barge. Peeking through the veils of her palanquin were the first strands of the dawn.

Her body ached. A dull burning ache. It was the same ache she’d felt after a night of sword training. The ache of a workout the day after. She squinted as her thighs and shoulders burned with a tight pain. A pain that, somewhat, she felt was good.

She pushed herself off of her silk bed. Bangahom was there immediately, seemingly having slept in the shadow of the room. Or did they sleep? Bakong wondered if Bangahom ever needed sleep. Or was she forgetting something?

“Your majesty,” said Bangahom. “It took me a bit to escape the docks.”

Bakong sighed and shook her head. “Just… call me Bakong, Bangahom.”

“But I serve you—”

“Yes. But you don’t need to stick to honorifics. Don’t worry, I won’t get angry.” She smiled at him. Bangahom shrugged. Far be it from him to reject the straight order from his master, after all. “Where is Binayaan?”

“On the fighting deck, I think. It is a quiet morning.”

Bakong nodded. She got to her feet, managed to stretch even in the undulating room of the barge, and then walked out. Bangahom leapt up and clung to her shoulder. “It seems your life is becoming more interesting, bayi. Perhaps it is good then that I am here.”

She was greeted with the sounds of awakening crewmen, walking to and fro to prepare food or to look at the outriggers or to contribute in the light paddling. An island loomed in the distance, but it was not Jambangan.

“Ah, the binukot has awoken.” Karakasa walked out from under the fighting deck, paying her courtesy by bowing low, hand up to the side of his face covering his cheek. “I hope the binukot has found some respite or relief in the intervening night.”

Bakong sighed. Was she? She had to be, she had decided. She had to be for now. Even if she doesn’t entirely understand the truth of her purpose, or why there are now hunters seemingly looking for her. “I think I have,” she replied. “Thank you, guro. I look forward to honing my spear skills with you.”

He nodded. “Is the binukot looking for anyone?”

“My sister,” she replied. “Binayaan.”

Karakasa turned and pointed at the stairway that went up to the second level of the fighting deck. “The princess should be up there.”

At that point, as Bakong walked up the stairway, she wondered why her sister was in such a strange place. Did she sleep up there the entire night? The answer, as she crested the fighting deck, was apparently yes. Binayaan was just waking up, rubbing her eyes. She was alone.

“Ah, good morning Bakong. Looks like you’ve gotten better.”

“My body aches,” she said, shrugging. She pulled herself onto the fighting deck and sat beside Binayaan, who was still rubbing her face. “But… I don’t think there’s much use in moping around.”

“Good, good. You can no longer be a damsel, Bakong,” said Binayaan.

“I’ve never been one,” Bakong replied.

Binayaan just smiled at that, and then shrugged. “It seems we’re nearing a little town called Bahin. On the southern tip of Kalanawan. Our last stop before Jambangan.”

“What must we stop there for? Food?”

Binayaan nodded. “For the most part. And for you to meet my crew, of course.”

“Ah.” Bakong turned around and saw three particular people standing by the prow of the ship trailing behind them as if riding upon the ripples of their ship. An elder man standing upon a staff, a woman clad in Rajahnate textiles and silks, and a woman who plucked away at a kudyapi almost absentmindedly as they watched the sun.

“You’ll find them to be an interesting lot. I’ve talked with Kiyam, I’ll be escorting you to Jambangan.”

“You do not have your own responsibilities you must attend to?”

Binayaan shook her head. “The best thing about being a freeman is that I don’t have that kind of thing like nobles do. I get to do what I want.”

Bakong bit her lip. “I suppose it also does help that you were a crown princess.”

Binayaan nodded. “Of course, of course, can’t ignore that. But yeah, I’m heading over to Jambangan to see if there are any lucrative opportunities. Jambangan is a great starting off point if one wants to explore the rest of the islands to the northeast, for example, or even to go into Baik Hu. The sky’s the limit.”

“You’ll leave.”

Binayaan nodded, still smiling. “Of course, that’s if you don’t want to go with me.”

Bakong exhaled. “Unlike you, I am binukot, with a responsibility to our father.”

“You don’t have to be.”

Bangahom piped up, standing atop Bakong’s head. “Wow, Binayaan you’d make a good yawa.”

“Why? Because I’m good at tempting people? Also why are you talking to me impolitely–”

“Yes that’s why,” Bangahom interrupted. “And because I don’t want to. You’re beneath me.”

Binayaan smiled so that the gold in her teeth could shine against the rising sun. “I’ve killed more yawa than you can think of.”

“Wow, you’re so cool.” But Bangahom said it with biting sarcasm that is hard to convey in the written medium.

“All right, that’s enough,” said Bakong. “I just hope Masuna will be fine.”

“He will, that little boy,” said Binayaan. “Next thing we know, he’s in Jambangan. Don’t worry. He always goes out of his way to fulfill his duties. Have faith in your kawal, Bakong.”

“Right, right, of course. I do. I do.”

A moment of idyllic morning silence.

Then, the sound of Kiyam. “Princesses! There’s tinapa over here. Come get some.”

Tinapa: Sun dried and/or smoked fish.

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